What’s the difference between a traditionally published, bestselling book and a self-published book? The authors who write either type of book arguably have similarly compelling messages, expertise, and wisdom to share with the world. I would even go so far as to say that self-published books have every opportunity to be just as high-quality as a traditionally published, bestselling book. But, honestly, the main difference is the quality of editing and design. Which leaves many self-publishing authors asking, “Is it possible to self-publish a bestseller?” And equally important, “How would I do that?
The traditionally published, bestselling book generally has a sleekness to the cover design that’s appealing from the shelf. The formatting is consistent. Typos are rare. The fonts and headings are stylish. The whole package just looks pristine.
Self-publishing has typically relied on bootstrapping, fostering a do-it-yourself on the cheap culture. Covers have been garish, formatting largely ignored, typography left to 12pt Times New Roman (or worse), and typos and glaring errors lingering.
But self-publishing is changing rapidly, and so is the quality.
I firmly, fully believe that soon self-published books will be equal to or higher quality than traditionally published books. Yes, soon we’ll all readily agree that it’s possible to self-publish a bestseller because it’s entirely possible for an author to hire top-notch editors, designers, and formatters. And it’s not as difficult or as expensive as you might think.
Let’s break down the components and costs of a high-quality, self-published book.
1. Cover design
If you’re going to bother putting a book out to market, you must invest in quality cover design. Your book cover instantly communicates to the potential reader whether or not it’s worth his time to even read the back blurb of your book.
Let me put this in a starker contrast: you’ll get 0 sales with an amateur cover, but you could hit bestsellers’ lists with a professional cover. The difference is real and consumer psychology extremely powerful.
How do you get a professionally designed cover? There are so many great options, but my favorite is 99designs.com. You run a contest and get to pick from dozens of designs from some of the best graphic art talent out there. You set the cash prize, and I recommend you go high. Offer at least the gold package prize ($799). It’ll be worth every penny.
Suggested budget: $800 (I like to round up.)
Ah, so often overlooked and oversimplified! How many teachers and courses suggest that you simply format your own book? Or buy a $30 program that’ll do a satisfactory job?
If your book is poorly formatted, it’ll show on page 1 of your book.
There are certain subtle distinctions between a professionally formatted book and a nonprofessionally formatted book. The average reader may not even be able to pinpoint the distinctions, but she’ll unconsciously pick up on them.
For instance, there’s a standard distance between a bullet point and the beginning of the line’s text. Word and Kindle formatting often screw this up, and it’s a pain in the keister to fix, but it’ll show your amateur formatting job, right away.
Also, in nonfiction, the book title is often the running head of the odd page, while the chapter title is often the running head of the even page—but not on chapter title pages! Yep, never even noticed that one, did you?
When you’re formatting for paperback print, the margin between the text and the spine should be farther apart than the margin between the text and the edge of the book. Makes sense, right? When they bind the paperback book, they need more space to glue the pages together into the spine. But you might not realize that if you’re formatting yourself. You’d just center the text and move on, but the reader would experience a squished feeling that would be very off-putting.
Why even fill your head with all this minutia that’s so easy to mess up? Especially when professional formatters are so easy to find. I love going to upwork.com to find formatters, but of course, I have my favorite formatter on our Paper Raven Books team, who we like to keep nice and busy. ;)
Suggested budget: $400 (for a 30,000-word book, ebook and PDF)
3. Final Proof
Are you that reader who always finds a typo in books? Yep, there are a lot of readers out there, just like you. And, yep, it looks very amateur if readers find more than about one typo per 30,000 words.
And, yet, as an author, how many times have you read through your own writing dozens of times, felt sure it was perfect, handed it off to someone else, and they find a typo in five minutes?! It’s so frustrating!
After a book has been formatted and you believe it’s absolutely perfect, you should absolutely hire a proofreader to do the final proof. The final proof checks for typos, egregious grammar errors, the spacing between sentences and paragraphs, consistency of chapter, heading, and subheading styles, the position of photos and captions, correct pagination, and a thousand little things that might escape notice but easily indicate amateur publishing.
Even when you think it’s perfect, get one, last, final proof to make sure it’s ready for market. That’s the mindset behind how you self-publish a bestseller.
Suggested budget: $400 (for a 30,000-word book, ebook and PDF)
4. Offer your book in ebook, paperback, and audiobook forms.
This is one of the quickest and most cost-effective ways to make your self-published book look super professional. Have you ever noticed your own reaction when you’re browsing the Amazon bookstore and you see a book that’s only available in ebook form? It feels a little less professional, doesn’t it?
Contrast that with your own reaction when you see a book available as all three—ebook, paperback, and audiobook. You might even assume that book was traditionally published. Most people do. And that’s exactly what you want them to think.
Plus, it’s not that much more investment of time, energy, or money to pull it off!
When you’re hiring the cover designer and formatter, ask them to give you the files needed to publish both on Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace. Ask the cover designer for an audiobook cover art for Audible. They should know the necessary files and dimensions. (If not, find someone else!)
Then, go to upwork.com and find a narrator who can produce the audiobook files for you. Check the narrator’s voice samples, previous work, and reviews before hiring!
And, when you have your trifecta publishing package all ready to go, upload your ebook, paperback book, and audiobook. You’ll look so professional people will readily believe your book was traditionally published, but you’ll know that you were able to self-publish a bestseller—your own.
But you'll know because you'll get to keep 70% of the profits, rather than the 10% that traditionally published authors keep.
Suggested additional budget for audiobook: $800 (for a 30,000-word book)
The catch: you have to assemble, manage, and pay for the team up front.
While it’s very doable to find quality people to accomplish each component of your book project, it’s not easy. You have to sort through cover designs and provide feedback to the designers. You have to post jobs for formatters, proofreaders, and narrators, then sift through resumes and previous work to find the perfect candidates.
And you have to pay them before you even make a dime. If you follow these guidelines, the total suggested budget for each component of a professional book is $2,400.
I know that’s a hefty investment. And it doesn’t even cover editing, prior to publication. (You can read more about finding an editor for your book here.)
Once you’ve assembled and paid for each team member, you have to actually move the project from phase to phase and make sure that each is being completed, up to your own standards. (And since you’re reading this, I know your standards are as high as mine!)
It’s a lot of work.
But it’s so worth the investment of time, energy, and money to make your book look as professional as possible. You will absolutely reap the benefits in sales, visibility, impact, and your own confidence.
I should mention, there is an easier way to self-publish a bestseller.
The Paper Raven Books team is now offering publishing services. Yep, we’ve assembled some of the best formatters, proofreaders, and project managers in the industry. We’ll make sure your book moves smoothly through a 99designs.com cover design competition, into painless formatting, through that critical final proof, and we’ll even find a narrator that’s perfect for your book. Plus, we’ll write an author bio, back-of-the-book blurb, and book description for you—and those are a critical piece of getting visibility in the Amazon bookstore.
Here are all the details on how we work with authors to publish their pro books on Amazon.
If you’re planning to finally release your book, fill out an application to get our help to publish your book (and looking pro!) on Amazon now.